With California billions behind on its budget and public services shrinking, the Assembly collectively tightened its belt last year but not all of its members did.
Records released under court order show that Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez boosted the budgets of six members by tens of thousands of dollars apiece despite the fiscal emergency.
Member-by-member records lift the curtain, for the first time, on how often Pérez used his authority to add to lawmakers' budgets, who benefited, and by what amounts.
Most Assembly members stayed within dollar limits set by Pérez; in fact, five legislators returned more than $150,000 apiece that they were authorized to spend, records show. But Assembly Republican Nathan Fletcher and Democrats Wilmer Amina Carter, Julia Brownley, Jim Beall, Sandré Swanson and Anthony Portantino saw their discretionary funding boosted by Pérez in a year when most state agencies were slashing costs.
Nearly every recipient of an augmentation from Pérez was a Democrat. The party's members control the 80-person house and receive the most coveted posts and largest budgets. Republicans typically receive some aid from their caucus to fund staff.
Any extra money from Pérez went to the members' committee or leadership coffers, not to their personal office budget of $263,000, making it difficult for the public to track how much was spent on personal aides.
Overall, the newly released records shed light on the extent to which legislators use committee funds for their own purposes: Of more than $17.5 million in committee funding last year, roughly $8.8 million was spent for committee staff and $8.7 million for office or district aides of their chairmen.
Totals are from Assembly data through mid-October and the house's own projections of its spending through the Nov. 30 end of the legislative year.
Robin Swanson, Pérez's spokeswoman, said that the Los Angeles Democrat "offsets any necessary augmentations by reducing Assembly spending overall."
"He expects members of the Assembly to stay within their office budgets and act as conscientious stewards of public funds and the overwhelming majority of them do," Swanson said.
Collectively, the Assembly donated about $23 million, more than 15 percent of its $146.7 million budget, to assist other cash-strapped agencies last year.
Pérez sets member-by-member budgets and later weighs changes to them behind closed doors. They are not voted upon. The Assembly fought, unsuccessfully, to keep from releasing those records to the public in a lawsuit filed by The Bee and Los Angeles Times.
Portantino, the lone Democrat to vote last year against the state budget, was the only legislator accused by the speaker's office of overspending. The La Cañada-Flintridge Democrat denies the claim, saying he was retaliated against for not toeing the party line on the budget.
Boosts to other lawmakers' budgets were due to workload increases or other extenuating circumstances, Swanson said.
Moderate Republican wins
Fletcher, a moderate San Diego Republican, received a budget boost from Perez of $37,000 last summer, which he used to hire press aide Amy Thoma at $7,084 per month. Thoma previously had helped the lawmaker unveil his candidacy for San Diego mayor. She left the Capitol to join a GOP consulting firm this year and now serves as Fletcher's deputy campaign manager.
Months after Thoma's hiring, Fletcher, who often is courted by Democrats on tight budget-related votes, bucked most of his GOP caucus to help pass a controversial plan to raise about $1 billion in corporate taxes, mostly from out-of-state companies, and redirect that money toward tax breaks for California businesses and individuals. The plan later died in the Senate.
Assemblywoman Carter, D-Rialto, received a $50,000 boost from Perez that erased months of projected red ink without having to cut staff.
Beginning early in 2011, projections warned that Carter would be short money to bankroll her 13-person staff, which included a chief of staff making $116,856.
Carter's problem was solved with Pérez's $50,000 augmentation last summer. Assembly fiscal officer Gus Demas said the stipend was tied to a caucus position that Carter had assumed in January assistant majority policy leader without receiving a budget hike at that time. Nobody previously had held that position, Swanson said.
Assemblywoman Julia Brownley's budget was roughly balanced last spring, but Pérez nevertheless added $28,000 to the Santa Monica Democrat's education committee funds. Swanson, the speaker's spokeswoman, said the increase was due to the panel's heavy workload in a year of budget-cutting affecting schools statewide.
"That is a critical issue right now and something that constituents are concerned about," Swanson said.
Assembly records show no spike in education committee costs, however. The panel retained the same five employees all year. By contrast, payroll costs for Brownley's personal staff exceeded initial projections by about $8,000.
Assembly administrator Jon Waldie said such statistics can be misleading because increased committee workload requires more meetings with stakeholders and places additional burden on the chair's scheduler, public information aide and other staff.
"Your desire to make things black and white is difficult, if not impossible," Waldie told The Bee.
Link to fliers denied
Assemblyman Jim Beall, who is running this year for a Senate seat, received a $30,000 budget augmentation last winter. Months later, the San Jose Democrat spent more than $70,000 to mail informational fliers to constituents an increase of about $60,000 over what he had projected in January, records show. He spent only $3,200 for postage in 2010.
Beall and Assembly officials said that last year's budget augmentation did not subsidize the fliers, which ranged from an announcement about a pancake breakfast to a rundown of Assembly achievements. The $30,000 budget boost was designed to offset Beall's costs for a foster care select committee that held three Capitol hearings last year. Unexpected departures by two personal aides freed about $63,000, which Beall said he used for fliers.
Assemblyman Sandre Swanson received extra funds totaling about $80,000 in a year in which he sought pay hikes for three employees two of whom received new job titles and one did not, records show. The largest increase raised the pay of the chief consultant of Swanson's Labor and Employment Committee from $105,996 to $121,896 annually.
Demas said that Swanson did not deserve the red ink in early 2011 projections. An accounting error recorded Swanson's committee budget as $538,000 when it should have been $640,000. The mistake was not spotted right away, but once it became known, the money was recorded to rectify it, Demas said.
Even before the Assembly's recent release of records, Portantino's fight with Pérez had been well documented. He received a $50,000 augmentation from the Assembly leader last year but needed more and didn't get it from Pérez after turning thumbs down on the state budget.
Portantino's problems stemmed partly from being stripped of the chairmanship of the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee in early 2011. The move cut his office funds by more than $70,000, but he did not immediately cut his 12-person staff, counting on Pérez's financial assistance.
Ten days after the budget vote, Pérez's Rules Committee ordered Portantino to cut his spending immediately and threatened to furlough his staff, a threat later rescinded.